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Why More Men Don't Get Into The Field Of Nursing


Nursing is one of the fastest growing job fields in this country according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It's also a job, though, that is plagued by stereotypes, gender stereotypes in particular. Nearly 90 percent of all nurses today are women. Social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam wanted to figure out why there aren't more male nurses.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: When Robert Vaughn walks into a hospital room, people often think he's the doctor. Once they realize he's the nurse, some patients get uncomfortable.

ROBERT VAUGHN: And you just go, oh, it's OK. If you don't want a male, I can talk to the charge nurse. And we'll make a note that you prefer female staff only.


VEDANTAM: The male nurse has long been an easy punchline. You've heard the jokes in movies like "Meet The Parents."


ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Jack Byrnes) Not many men in your profession, though, are there, Greg?

BEN STILLER: (As Greg Focker) No, Jack, not traditionally.

VEDANTAM: And in TV shows like "Friends."


MATTHEW PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) Nurse, not a doctor, huh? Kind of girly, isn't it?


VEDANTAM: The underlying message of these stereotypes - there's something weird about a man who's a nurse. Vaughn says this might be why some patients get uneasy.

VAUGHN: I find it somewhat hypocritical when you'll have a - the doctor is a male, and it's very intimate. But somehow, as a nurse, I'm male and that's a problem. It's - it doesn't make any sense to me. You go, wait a minute, the doctor is a male, too. Somehow you have no issue with him. But as a male nurse, you have an issue. It's contradictory.

JENNIFER BOSSON: There is a lot of things that are off limits for men.

VEDANTAM: University of South Florida psychologist Jennifer Bosson has studied why men are often reluctant to engage in activities traditionally dominated by women. In one revealing experiment, her team gathered a group of nearly 200 men and women and sat them in front of computers.

BOSSON: We just kind of let them right for, you know, a few minutes about a time when they violated their gender role in public.

VEDANTAM: Some women talked about being a tomboy. Others mentioned working in male-dominated fields and feeling harassed by co-workers. But men...

BOSSON: Men say things like, I wore a pink shirt to work. Or I held my girlfriend's purse while she ran into the bank. Or I ordered a drink at a restaurant and when it came out to me, it had a little cocktail umbrella in it. And my - you know, my friends teased me. So it's like - it's just mundane things. Like, women don't say, oh, I wore the wrong shirt.


VEDANTAM: Why would men make such a big deal over trivial things? The familiar explanation is misogyny or homophobia. That's what Bosson thought, too, until she began to think about the different messages that boys receive from a very young age.

BOSSON: Are you a real man? Or they say man up.

VEDANTAM: Bosson built on this insight and conducted a series of research experiments into why men behave the way they do. Her conclusion...

BOSSON: My collaborators and I argue that the male gender role itself is kind of conceptualized as a more precarious status. So manhood is something that's hard to earn and easy to lose relative to womanhood.


VEDANTAM: Manhood is something that's hard to earn and easy to lose. Men fear pink shirts and purses because they're defending something fragile.

In terms of why this would be the case, why would you have one sex essentially have a more limited repertoire or have more policing around its boundaries? Why do women take their femininity for granted in ways that men do not take their masculinity for granted?

BOSSON: That's a really hard question to answer, but I think it has to do with how men - their social status is more hierarchically organized than women's is. So men are kind of more interested in or motivated to attain social status. And that kind of then translates into what we propose is kind of a chronic anxiety about their status. And that translates into a concern about whether one's seen as a real man or not.

VEDANTAM: Men worry about what other men will think, what women will think, what they themselves might think. Bosson has some ideas on how to get more men into nursing. She argues that the way to do it is to come up with a new set of stereotypes.

BOSSON: You could spin nursing as a very masculine occupation. It's dangerous. It's physically grueling. Our stereotype of the nurse - you know, you could modify that stereotype and turn nursing into a profession that does seem masculine or male appropriate.


VEDANTAM: Something along these lines happened to Robert Vaughn when he was considering whether to become a nurse. At 23, he just finished four years in the Navy. He wanted to go back to school. His wife's dad had a suggestion.

VAUGHN: My father-in-law, who's a respiratory therapist, said, hey, you know, you should really look into nursing.

VEDANTAM: Vaughn didn't immediately take his father-in-law's advice.

VAUGHN: Like a lot of guys, I think the first thing that went through my head was, well, that's a woman's job.

VEDANTAM: But Vaughn did get a job at a hospital working as a security guard. And one day something happened that upturned his stereotypes about nursing.

VAUGHN: We had a couple guys who came into the emergency room, and they were just very belligerent, fighting. And there was blood all over the place. And the nurses and us and the sheriffs were holding them down and sedating and restraining and - I was like, man, this is pretty cool (laughter). The action that the nurses were seeing was pretty exciting for me.


VAUGHN: You know, you think of nursing, you think of someone sitting at a bedside and being like, let me hold your hand. And you see what it is realistically day to day. And for me, it was 180 degrees.


VEDANTAM: When it comes to fighting stereotypes, we often imagine that the right approach is to explain why stereotypes are wrong. But Robert Vaughn's life and Jennifer Bosson's experiments suggest a different solution and perhaps a more effective one. Stereotypes are powerful because the stories we tell about ourselves are powerful. They shape how we see the world and how the world sees us. But in the end, they're only stories. And stories - we can rewrite them. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

MARTIN: Shankar is the host of NPR's Hidden Brain podcast and radio show. You can hear more research about masculinity on the latest episode. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.